FTP becoming Forgotten Transfer Protocol as Debian turns it off

Distro download servers are too hard to run and users ignore them anyway

FTP

Debian is shutting down its public File Transfer Protocol (FTP) services, because hardly anybody uses them any more and they're hard to operate and maintain.

The project has told world+dog that come November 1st, 2017, ftp://ftp.debian.org and ftp://security.debian.org will cease operations.

The reasons are pretty simple: Debian contributor Cédric Boutillier says “FTP servers have no support for caching or acceleration”, which probably means Debian has to throw more hardware at FTP than is sensible. He also notes that most software implementations "have stagnated and are awkward to use and configure...the protocol is inefficient and requires adding awkward kludges to firewalls and load-balancing daemons.”

And then there's the fact that “usage of the FTP servers is pretty low as our own installer has not offered FTP as a way to access mirrors for over ten years.”

The decision to close the public services isn't the end of FTP at Debian – developer services will be maintained at ftp://ftp.upload.debian.org and ftp://security-master.debian.org. But the public services are on death row. The public FTP services will revert to HTTP come November 1st.

The IETF RFC for FTP was published on April 16, 1971 and was “developed for immediate implementation on two hosts at MIT, the GE645/Multics and the PDP-10/DM/CG-ITS (and possibly Harvard's PDP-10).” The protocol became widely used, and in the days of bulletin boards was a typical mechanism for software downloads. In pre-Dropbox days an FTP server was also a handy way to make documents widely available.

But the protocol was also finicky, required lots of chatter between machines before data would flow and had no native encryption. That's because it was designed for host-to-host communications, but was instead used widely in client/server scenarios.

HTTP was therefore designed in part to do things FTP was bad at, for instance, loading lots of files so they could be assembled onto something like a web page.

Debian ditching FTP won't kill the protocol. But if even Linux users aren't keen on it as a way to get their hands on files, surely that's a sign FTP is on its way to becoming a forgotten transfer protocol? Or will Reg readers prove that statement wrong with tales of FTP playing an important ongoing role? ®

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